breast cancer article image

Breast Cancer: 15 Most Commonly Asked Questions

Can a woman in her 20s or 30s get breast cancer? How is the diagnosis different? Get answers to 15 most-asked questions about breast cancer screening, symptoms, complications and treatment options.

by Jo-Kym New

Breast cancer in women and men

Breast cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women who are 50 or older, but there are other vulnerable groups such as men and younger women who are also battling this disease. Regardless of age, women and men need to be aware of their breast health and perform regular breast examination. If you or your loved one is recently diagnosed with breast cancer or are fearful of the disease, the first step is to educate yourself about the symptoms, complications and treatment options. We compiled a list of 15 most frequently asked questions about breast cancer to encourage you to take proactive steps that minimise the risk and care for your personal needs.

Top 15 Most-Asked Questions About Breast Cancer

1. How common is breast cancer?

Out of all types of cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer affecting women, accounting for 34.1 per cent of all cancer among women in Malaysia. The majority of these cases are among women between the ages of 40 and 60 years old. Alas, many women put breast cancer screening on hold until they hit 40. As a result, nearly two fifths of the new cases identified each year were already in the more advanced stages of the chronic condition.

1. Can a woman in her 20s or 30s get breast cancer?

Breast cancer in women under 40 isn’t common, that is, only 5 percent of cases. Still, that doesn’t mean it will never happen. For instance, Chrissy Turner became the youngest patient on the record to be diagnosed with breast cancer at ten years old. Although this cancer is considered rare in your 20s or 30s, it tends to be more aggressive at this age range due to its ability to spread faster. Hence, it is important to be alert of the risk factors and frequently examine yourself. 

2. What is the survival rate of breast cancer in Malaysia?

The five-year survival rate from the point of diagnosis is 99 percent, whereas individuals diagnosed with breast cancer at Stage 1 have a survival rate of as high as 90 percent. Having said that, only five out of 10 breast cancer patients in Malaysia survive 10 years according to Cancer Research Malaysia. This is a result to late detection and inadequate or delayed access to treatment.

3. Does breast cancer worsen with age?

It might seem logical to think that as the risk of developing the disease increases with age, the chances of survival become slimmer as you grow older. However, this isn’t the case. As a matter of fact, breast cancer may be more aggressive in younger women and as a result, they are less likely to respond to treatment. In turn, this worsens the survival rate for women aged 40 or younger. Albeit, the outcomes between younger and older women will differ based on cancer subtypes.

4. What are the early signs of breast cancer?

The 10 warning signs of breast cancer are as follows:

  1. A sore in the skin of the breast
  2. Unusual or bloody nipple discharge
  3. Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  4. Breast or nipple pain
  5. Nipple retraction (nipple is pulled into the breast)
  6. Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
  7. Itchy rash around the nipple
  8. Changes in the size or shape of the breast
  9. Thickening or swelling of all or part of the breast
  10. Lumps in the breast or underarm

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5. Does breast size affect the risk of breast cancer?

While women with larger-sized breasts are prone to other health concerns such as back problems and poor posture, studies have shown that there is no link between bust size and breast cancer. That said, body weight and physical inactivity are among the major modifiable risk factors, along with smoking and drinking alcohol. Other non-modifiable factors include age, gender and breast tissue density.

6. Does breast cancer run in the family?

If a close blood relative was diagnosed with breast cancer, chances are that you have inherited the genes responsible for developing the disease.

In different circumstance, this risk can be heightened:

  • The risk is doubled if one of your female relatives has developed breast cancer 
  • The risk is five times higher if you have two female relatives with breast cancer
  • The risk is higher for younger women if your female relatives has developed breast cancer at a younger age (before 50)
  • Your male family member has breast cancer

7. Which breast does cancer usually start in?

Breast cancer more likely develops in the left breast than in the right breast. Albeit the cause is still unknown. It typically begins with the physical sign of a lump that is hard, irregularly shaped, and painless. Other signs may appear at the same time or later, however, it is important to note that these symptoms do not automatically guarantee that you have the cancer. If you are unsure, speak to a medical professional or go for a clinical examination.

8. How is breast cancer diagnosis different for younger women?

Diagnosing breast cancer in younger women can be more difficult. This is because their breast tissue is generally denser compared to that of older women, making any lumps less noticeable at an early stage. In turn, this allows the cancer to spread quickly and could delay any course of action. Hence it is crucial to stay alert of your personal risk factors and see a doctor if you experience any symptoms to detect any cancer as early as possible.

9. Can breast cancer in younger women be prevented or treated?

Young or old, breast cancer may not be prevented but it can be treated. The earlier you seek treatment for your cancer, the sooner you can improve your condition. The doctor will consider many different factors when deciding the best treatment for you. Surgery is often the first step in treatment, with the aim to remove the tumour to stop it from spreading to the rest of the body. In other cases, the doctor might recommend additional types of treatments: chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy drugs.

10. Will breast cancer affect my fertility?

Breast cancer treatment could cause various side effects; some are temporary side effects while others are longer lasting. Chemotherapy and radiation can affect your ability to become pregnant because it damages the cells in your ovaries that produce healthy eggs. If you are a young woman who is planning to start a family, discuss with your doctor any methods to preserve your fertility—such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) or oncofertility to freeze eggs—before you begin treatment. 

11. What are the other side effects?

Everyone who undergoes treatment experiences different side effects and at different rates. The temporary side effects of breast cancer treatment may include swelling, red or dry skin, mouth sores, and numbness in your hands and feet. It is equally important to note the unique side effects of chemotherapy such as extreme fatigue, hair loss, nausea or vomiting, and blood clot. These should be temporary and under control, however, they may last longer depending on your personal factors. If you have concerns or feel unwell, inform your doctor immediately. 

13. What do I do when I find a lump?

Most of the time, breast cancer is discovered when a person notices a lump or any changes in their breast. In reality, breast lumps are actually common and benign or non-cancerous, particularly in younger women. Nevertheless, if it isn’t something you’ve experienced before, it is always a good idea to have your breasts evaluated as soon as possible. If your doctor confirms that you have an area of concern, he or she will most likely perform testing. Some clinical examinations your doctor may recommend are mammograms, breast ultrasounds, or MRI. 

14. How can I get a breast cancer screening in Malaysia?

Whether self- or clinical screening, breast examination is a key step in early detection to getting the medical attention you need. This helps to prevent or minimise invasive treatments like surgery or mastectomies (breast removal). The simplest way to examine your breasts is to do a routine breast self-examination at home with a few simple steps.

breast cancer self exam

Besides, you can opt for mammograms which are recommended for younger women with a family history of breast cancer. Mammograms are available at participating government hospitals, private clinics and private hospitals.

15. Where can I find support for women with breast cancer?

Some organisations that offer free services include:

  • The Ministry of Women, Family & Community Development or LPPKN, provides free or subsidised breast cancer screenings for women that meet the eligibility criteria. 
  • The National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) offers free breast cancer screenings for underprivileged communities under the Free Community Outreach Programme.

Support groups are a safe place where you can give and receive psychological and emotional support from other individuals who are in a similar situation. Join their educational, social, and recreational activities for free:

Staying in the pink of your breast health

Whether you are curiously trying to stay informed or have been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, it is important to stay on top of your breast health to the best of your ability for the sake of your overall well being. Remember, prevention is always better than cure. Schedule regular medical checkups and always be on the lookout for resources from credible sources that help you maintain a proactive lifestyle. Furthermore, you can ask your doctor for clarification on matters pertaining to your lifestyle and needs.

Five helpful questions to ask your doctor:

  1. What type of breast cancer do I have?
  2. At what stage is my cancer and what does this mean for me?
  3. How will the treatment affect my daily activities?
  4. What can I do to improve and what should I avoid?
  5. Are there symptoms or side effects I should inform you about immediately?
  6. Will I need any other tests before we can decide on treatment?
  7. What do I need to know before undergoing treatment?

At the same time, we acknowledge that the breast cancer journey can be a scary and confusing time for a lot of women, even for the strongest and bravest out there. You are suddenly faced with an overwhelming amount of information and this can trigger so many emotions. Remember these three important things in life:

  • You are human: Know that every single emotion you are feeling is valid.
  • You are loved: Reach out to your closest friends and family to become your pillars of strength.
  • You are not alone: Medical teams and support groups are waiting to offer you the practical help you deserve. 

Quality Cancer Care At Home

If you prefer to consult a medical professional in the privacy of your home, consider engaging at-home nursing care services like Homage. Our trained care professionals are equipped to provide care for you or your loved ones at any stage of cancer — companionship for activities of daily living, nursing care, night caregiving, home therapy and more.

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References
  1. Breast Cancer Now. (2021).  Going through breast cancer treatment. Retrieved 25 October, 2021, from https://breastcancernow.org/information-support/facing-breast-cancer/going-through-breast-cancer-treatment/ 
  2. Cancer Research Malaysia. (2021). Breast Cancer. Retrieved 25 October, 2021, from https://www.cancerresearch.my/our-work/breast-cancer/ 
  3. Charlotte E. G. (2004). Breast Cancer: Breast Cancer in Young Women. Medicinenet. Retrieved 25 October, 2021, from https://www.medicinenet.com/breast_cancer_in_young_women/article.htm#how_is_breast_cancer_treated_in_younger_women 
  4. Do Young Women Have Worse Breast Cancer Outcomes? It Seems to Depend on the Cancer’s Characteristics. (2016). Breastcancer.org.  Retrieved 25 October, 2021, from https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/do-young-women-have-worse-outcomes 
  5. Ministry of Health Malaysia. (2019). Malaysia National Cancer Registry Report 2012-2016. Retrieved 25 October, 2021, from https://www.moh.gov.my/moh/resources/Penerbitan/Laporan/Umum/2012-2016%20(MNCRR)/MNCR_2012-2016_FINAL_(PUBLISHED_2019).pdf 
About the Writer
Jo-Kym New
Jo-Kym is an inbound marketer who is deeply passionate about mental health and family relationships. Her creative outlets are journalling, mobile photography, food and fashion.
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